Drones for the Holidays
Helicopters, quadcopters, and this year’s other amazing remote-controlled flying toys
In the first version of the AR.Drone, you did have to remember where the drone’s nose was pointed—if you tilted your phone right, the plane went to its right, not your right. But thanks to an on-board magnetometer, the drone now knows how its orientation compares to yours. After you enable a flying mode called “Absolute Control,” when you tilt your phone to the right, the plane will go toward your right, even if that’s different from its own right. This makes flying drop-dead easy. There is essentially no learning curve with the new drone.
And that gets to my only slight problem with it: It can sometimes be a bit boring. Because it’s so capable by itself, it doesn’t even really need you. Even its tricks are CPU-powered—double-tap the screen and the bird rises up a few feet, does a somersault in the air, and returns to its original position. I suppose there are some ways to challenge yourself: The plane’s app shows you a live on-screen image from the drone’s cameras, so, theoretically, you can fly it even while it’s out sight. I didn’t try that, but it could be a good way to scare your neighbors.
What I’d really like from the next version of the drone is full autonomy. Let’s make it a drone worthy of its name—I give it some GPS coordinates, it flies there by itself, then returns. I’ll be right here at my phone, watching the show.
Batteries: 6 points. The Parrot Drone comes with its own rechargeable battery, which gives you a 10- to 15- minute flight after a 90-minute charge. Extra batteries sell for $40 each.
Air Hogs Battle Tracker, $69.88 on Amazon.com
I expected the Battle Tracker to be a worthless gimmick. It’s an RC chopper and a robotic anti-aircraft turret. It’s your job, as the helicopter pilot, to disable the gun by shooting little yellow discs at it; all the while, the turret tracks your chopper, locks on to its location, and pelts you with Nerf-like foam missiles. (There’s also a two-player mode in which your friend controls the turret.)
I thought the whole thing sounded too good to be true. The anti-aircraft gun, I suspected, wouldn’t be able to target the chopper accurately, and the chopper wouldn’t be able to fly straight while loaded down with shooting discs.
Happily, I was wrong. Not only is the chopper pretty airworthy, it also shoots really well. Those flying discs fly straight, fast, and far. The turret, meanwhile, is a marvel of toy robotics. It tracks your bird’s position with frustrating precision, knocking you out of the sky even if you’re five or six feet away. Best of all, it has sound effects—it reports on its status in a robotic whine, and when it shoots a missile, there’s a frightening, thunderous snap.
Of all the flying toys I tried, the Battle Tracker was the most fun. It addresses the central dilemma of RC flyers—once you’ve gotten it to fly straight, what do you do now? What I like best is that the game is just difficult enough to keep you playing. Even if you’re a good pilot, getting your chopper to hit the turret dead on will take many tries. (The turret has a sensor that can detect when it’s been shot—when it does, it theatrically shuts itself down.)
My only gripe with the Tracker: It comes with too few missiles and shooting discs. Because they go quite far, and because the tracker can follow your bird for a full 360 degrees, the ammo ends up everywhere. Air Hogs doesn’t sell any replacements, either, so if you lose them, the toy becomes useless. So don’t lose them.
Batteries: 6 points. You need 10 AA batteries to power the tracker and the remote control, which is also the charging pad for the helicopter. After about 30 minutes of charging, you get about 5 minutes of flying.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.